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Nerves!

I was chatting with a friend recently, who asked, “What’s the scariest thing you’ve ever done?” 

I thought about fear and tried to remember the last time I felt truly frightened. When I moved overseas alone? Dropping into a halfpipe for the first time? I realised the last time I felt something like real fear was before the grand final of last year’s Tropicarnage tournament. Same deal the Tropicarnage before that. Same deal before the grand final at The Great Southern Slam in 2012, and before our game against England at the 2011 World Cup. 

“Do you get nervous before every game?” my friend followed up.

“Every big game, yeah,” I realised. “When there’s a lot at stake.”

Looking back at the 2013 Tropicarnage final, I don’t think I’ve ever felt as nervous about anything in my life as I did about that game. I barely slept the night before the game; I couldn’t stop thinking about every possible scenario and outcome. I felt too ill to eat anything for breakfast, only managing to swallow about a third of a banana before my stomach revolted. The whole drive there, my insides churned, and I shook feverishly as I tried to distract myself.

Before a game, when we’re pacing and wringing our hands and trying to keep our porridge in our bellies, people will often tell us to relax, but this is actually kind of misguided. You don’t want to relax; you’re about to go into battle. Feeling nervous means you care about what’s at stake – that’s what it feels like to compete. You’ve no doubt heard stories about people who, when in danger, summon superhuman strength, or run ten times further and faster than usual. Our bodies are pretty incredible machines, and there are mechanisms at play that allow us to do more in times of heightened demand than we might normally be capable of. You see, the nerves you feel and the adrenaline pumping through your body before a game can actually help you perform better – you need to learn to use the nerves, rather than fight them. 

I’ve heard it said that excitement and nerves feel the same when we experience them. They each induce the same tummy flips and sweaty palms that we enjoy and detest, respectively. Have a real think about how you’re feeling and what you’re experiencing – is it possible you’re excited, because you love the game and can’t wait to compete? This simple adjustment to your thinking may be enough to pull you out of the downward spiral to Negative Nerve-Town. If, however, you can’t convince yourself, there are a few things you can do to help channel that adrenaline when your mind is running wild.

Breathe

I know, duh. But try again, this time with feeling. Breathing is the single easiest tool you have to reel it in when you start going off the deep end. In fact, focusing on your breath can help you in almost any situation in which you’re starting to feel like you’re losing control. It helps bring you back to the present moment, focus more clearly on the task at hand, and arrange your thoughts – it’s very meditative. So stop, collect yourself and take a deep breath in, then slowly let it out. Make your inhalations and exhalations long – count to three, or five, or ten if you want to show off. Narrate to yourself: “In….and out. In. Out.” Breathing this way is particularly powerful when done in a team huddle on the bench if the team is beginning to unravel. We’ve been known to have a five-person deep breathing huddle on the track during a time out, and its benefit cannot be overstated.  

Visualise

See yourself recycling that jammer like a mofo, watch as you leap effortlessly across the apex, visualise yourself hoisting the trophy over your head. Notice the smile on your face and your teammates hugging one another, and the score on the board, and the joy in the room. Apparently, our weirdo brains can’t tell the difference between imagining these things and them actually happening – John Green did a really fascinating video about flashbulb memories, in which our brains create a narrative that we can recall perfectly, but which is actually entirely made up:


Anyway, the idea is that seeing these things in our heads looks as real to us as if it has actually already happened, and makes them seem much more feasible. After all, if you’ve already witnessed yourself holding the trophy, why wouldn’t you be able to do it again?

Enforce

While you’re gearing up or pacing or whatever, use positive phrases to remind yourself exactly what you’re going to do. These can be things like:
“I’m going to stop the jammer”
“I’m going to consistently get lead.”
“We’re going to recycle her back through the pack on every pass.”

Notice that I specifically said “positive phrases”. It’s important to focus on what you WILL do, as opposed to what you WON’T do. This means saying “I will stop the jammer” instead of “I won’t let the jammer past me”. Positive phrases are much more powerful than negative ones – saying “I will stop the jammer” is empowering, and it helps remind you that you’re able to take care of the task at hand. 

Make sure you’re not using the word “don’t”, the way we sometimes say to ourselves, “Don’t cut, don’t cut, don’t cut!” As soon as you get cutting on the mind, it’s a slippery slope straight to the box. Instead, tell yourself, “I will stay on the track, or yield whenever I need to.” Doesn’t that sound like you have much more faith in yourself than saying, “Don’t cut, you idiot! God, don’t you even know how to yield?” I know that sounds harsh, but honestly, that’s what you’re telling yourself when you use negative phrases instead of positive ones. And you’re better than that. You deserve more!

Nerves are a funny thing – they can make you go either way. A positive mindset and faith in your team can mean the difference between being clutch, and totally choking. People often ask how they can get rid of nerves, but I don’t think you necessarily need to. Feeling nervous means you care about what’s at stake. That’s what it feels like to compete. Don’t try to quell that feeling – learn to use it! Nerves and excitement feel so similar for me that they often intermingle before a game, and I love that feeling! But because my team and I have been working our arses off, and I know the game plan, and I won’t be alone out there, it’s easier to convince myself that the fluttery feeling in my tummy isn’t a bad thing.

So, when you're thinking "Why was this game so much more nerve-racking than another one?" remember it’s all about the spin you put on it. Never deem something impossible or throw your hands in the air. If anyone else has done any research into sports psychology relating to performance anxiety, we’d really love to hear your thoughts. Email me here!

Cheers, Blockie

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